The US Navy's top SEAL, four-star Admiral William McRaven, is pushing hard for a modern suit of armor called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS). Though not exactly an Iron Man suit, it's that ballpark. As a result, a Broad Agency Announcement has now been issued seeking proposals and research in support of the design, construction, and testing of TALOS, with a basic version hopefully seeing service within three years.

The TALOS program has often been described as developing an Iron Man suit for special ops teams, but a better analogy might be the powered armor in Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers. Among the advanced capabilities of interest to the TALOS development effort are advanced armor, improved strength and stamina, thermal management of the soldier, efficient power systems, and integrated medical monitoring/treatment system. At present, there are no plans to include flight capability.

The announcement is quite unusual in that it has no set-asides or cost-sharing requirements. Grants made for research and development will be for a period of less than one year, and projects requiring in excess of $2 million for that period will require serious justification. White papers submitted in response to the announcement will be evaluated on a quarterly basis. The total budget available has not been announced.

SOCOM has also issued a new Request for Information that seeks input on longer-term revolutionary and novel technologies that have the potential to impact the TALOS program on a longer timescale, but currently have a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of five or less. These TRLs correspond to the range between basic research on a technology through partial demonstrations of new technologies.

These technology demonstrations, to be held in mid-November, have the goal of identifying technologies and innovative developmental approaches which could potentially supply revolutionary, game changing capabilities and developmental approaches to the TALOS program as well as to USSOCOM supported Research and Development in general.

Artist's concept of an early version of a Warrior Web suit, likely to be a major part of an eventual TALOS suit (Image: DARPA)

So what is a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit likely to offer a Special Ops soldier? A few of the more dramatic ideas have surfaced, giving us some notion of where the program might lead.

One high-priority area is to include a lighter, but more effective armor system, that includes effective protection of the head and extremities. While a good deal of current research in this area is looking at shear thickening fluids, which become stiff on impact, a new thrust into the use of magnetorheological fluids that become solid and gain extreme strength when subjected to intense pulses of magnetic fields or electric currents. Technologies that will improve protection against blast waves will also be sought.

Even an early version of TALOS will include passive or low-powered exoskeletons to improve strength and endurance of the individual soldier. These will probably follow closely the progress of DARPA's Warrior Web program, which is seeking a 20 pound exoskeleton-based suit that can roughly double the long-term performance of a soldier. Later versions are likely to be limited only by their power supplies.

Situational awareness and C4 (Command, Control, Communications, and Computers) capabilities are under constant development in military circles, and the best are likely to be incorporated into TALOS.

Finally, greatly enhanced medical diagnostic and treatment abilities will also be integrated into TALOS. Depending on shock to allow soldiers to function after being wounded is not the best idea in the world. Instead, it will likely include enough diagnostic capability to provide an accurate picture of the physical and mental capabilities of a wounded soldier. Real-time treatment of some injuries and conditions by, perhaps under the supervision of a medic, is also a possibility. The suit is nearly certain to allow remotely-activated oxygen and drug treatment, but wound stasis being perhaps the most revolutionary.

DARPA's Wound Stasis System is being developed to, simply put, prevent soldiers from bleeding to death if at all possible. The way this operates is based on a new polyurethane polymer foam developed for the purpose. It can be injected into the abdominal cavity, or into penetrating wounds, where it then expands to 30 times the original size, in the process sealing off and compressing wounds, thereby reducing the rate of blood loss six-fold in early tests. The foam does no adhere to tissues and does not trap blood in pockets within the foam, as the expansion of the foam occurs too quickly.

TALOS is a wide-ranging program, requiring development and application of technologies across the technical spectrum. It would have little chance of remaining a coherent program without the fervent support of one of the US military's most senior officers. "I'm very committed to this, I'd like that last operator that we lost to be the last operator we lose in this fight or the fight of the future, and I think we can get there," McRaven told dozens of industry representatives during a planning meeting held in July. Time will tell, but it seems likely that powered combat armor is on the horizon.

You can see a video on TALOS below.

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